Carl Linnaeus: Botanist & Creationist

A Historical Overview of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish Botanist and Biblical Creationist Who Developed the Influential Linnaean Classification System in Biology.

by Harry F. Sanders, III on May 23, 2021
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Abstract

While many may recognize the name Carl Linnaeus, few could explain his relevance to science or tell you much about his life. Most simply recall his name as one they had to memorize in science class, or they perhaps associate him with the classification system that bears his name and nothing more. This fact is regrettable, as Linnaeus was both an outstanding scientist and a biblical creationist.

Carl Linnaeus was born May 23, 1707, in a farmhouse in Rashult, Sweden. The son of a pastor and a pastor’s daughter, Linnaeus’s upbringing was deeply religious. Linnaeus quickly took after his parents’ interests and developed a passion for plants from an early age. His father’s chosen surname was derived from the name of a tree,1 and both his father and mother loved to garden.2

Linnaeus began his education at home at a young age. His father taught him several subjects, including the basics of Latin, a language Linnaeus would use extensively throughout his life. While his family was not wealthy, his father made enough to hire a tutor, but Linnaeus was ultimately sent to a boarding school where he spent far more time looking for plants in the local countryside and devouring the extant botanical literature than he did studying. When his father learned that Linnaeus was not performing well in school, he attempted to pull him out and make him an apprentice to a craftsman.3

A Series of Fortunate Events

Several people at the school and in the area, however, had noticed Linnaeus’s botanical talents. They convinced his father that Linnaeus should continue his schooling, but not in divinity as both his parents had previously hoped. Instead, Linnaeus would study medicine. A noted doctor of the time offered to instruct Linnaeus and help him complete his time at the gymnasium.4,5 This mentor also encouraged his studies of plant systematics and provided readings that would influence Linnaeus for the rest of his life. It would not be the last time Linnaeus found a friend at an important moment.

When Linnaeus completed his time at the gymnasium, his mentor recommended that he continue his education at a university in Lund. Linnaeus agreed and joined the household of a doctor near the university. He spent a year in Lund before moving to Uppsala, where there was a bigger university—and a much larger botanical garden. Here again, Linnaeus would be blessed. Lacking funds, he would have quit the university were it not for his meeting with Olof Celsius. Celsius, the uncle of the man for whom the temperature scale is named, was a theologian and an expert on biblical plants. Impressed with the young man’s knowledge and personality, Celsius invited Linnaeus to stay with his family, effectively ending Linnaeus’ money problems.6

In Linnaeus’s third year of university, the professorship of botany became available. Remarkably, the university bestowed it upon Linnaeus, who had yet to finish his degree.7 This appointment led to some significant conflict between Linnaeus and another professor. To get the upper hand, Linnaeus knew that he needed his MD. It was common at the time for Swedish medical students to complete their medical training in the Netherlands, so in 1735, he went to Haderwijk to begin his degree.

Linnaeus’s time in Holland was of immense importance. Some of his most well-known works, like Systema Naturae and Genera Plantarum, were published there during his three-year stay. He also obtained his MD, though it was a mere formality, considering he’d arrived with his dissertation pre-written and, within the space of a week, had been awarded his doctoral degree.8 During a trip to England and a short stopover in France, he made many valuable botanical connections and returned to Sweden in 1738. He would never leave the country again.

Upon his return, he became engaged to the daughter of a wealthy doctor and took up medical practice in Stockholm. His practice flourished, enabling him to marry in 1739. He and his wife had seven children, five of which survived to adulthood. In 1741, Linnaeus moved back to Uppsala, where he would spend the rest of his life teaching at the university, with periodic trips into various provinces in Sweden to look for plants. He would also continue to write voluminously, producing countless letters and several more major works, including Philosophia Botanica in 1751. He classified many new species during this time and encouraged others to follow his footsteps in the botanical world. His work was known well enough to get him raised to nobility in 1757, upon which he took a new version of his name: Carl von Linne. When he passed away on January 10, 1778, he was one of the most well-known and respected scientists of his time.

The System

Linnaeus is particularly relevant to creation science because of his invention of the Linnean system of classification, premiered in Systema Naturae. The original Linnean system was fairly simple, consisting of a kingdom level at the top, followed by phylum, classes, orders, genera, species, and varieties. The system has changed substantially over the years, inserting families between orders and genera, introducing several new kingdoms, and adding domains at the top of the system. Varieties have been dropped and replaced by subspecies. Regardless of these “tweaks,” the Linnean rank-based system has been the foundation of systematics for close to three centuries.

While the system has been somewhat sidelined by the adoption of an evolutionary taxonomic system, the everlasting contribution Linnaeus gave systematics was binomial nomenclature.

While the system has been somewhat sidelined by the adoption of an evolutionary taxonomic system,9 the everlasting contribution Linnaeus gave systematics was binomial nomenclature. Prior to Linnaeus, scientific names had been long, complicated things, often with nearly whole sentences describing the organism in question. By formalizing binomial nomenclature, Linnaeus standardized scientific names. He went to exhaustive lengths in his books to explain what was and was not a good scientific name. His main criteria was that it had to be composed of a genus and species name in either Greek or Latin.

The genius of binomial nomenclature was its innate simplicity and repurposing of existing thought. Naturalists were already using Latin as the international scientific language. Linnaeus took that foundation and built it into the structure of his scientific system. To introduce simplicity, he shortened the names down from the extended mouthfuls they had been to shorter, two-word pairs. Linnaeus also gave some extensive instructions on how to choose genus and species names. While not the first to use two-word names, Linnaeus was the first to formalize a naming convention with two words and use it consistently.

There is a long-held stereotype that creationists believe in fixity of species, partly because of Linnaeus. When Linnaeus put together his classification system, he did accept a fixity of species idea. However, it’s important to remember that Linnaeus originally wrote in Latin. In Latin, the word species means kind. Species was transliterated into English and has evolved, as it were, through time. It no longer means kind. Instead, the most common definition, derived from Mayr, is a group of similar organisms that either interbreed or have the potential to do so.10

That Linnaeus had the biblical kind in view when he discussed species comes out very clearly in his section on characters in Philosophia Botanica, where he says, “We reckon the number of species as the number of different forms that were created in the beginning.”11 Linnaeus is clearly thinking about the original created kinds here, referencing back to Genesis 1, where things are created “after their kind.”

In other words, Linnaeus allowed for variation within kinds where he thought the kind boundary was, just like creationists today.

While Linnaeus did hold to a fixity of species (in the sense of biblical kinds), it is also clear that he believed in variation within what he believed was the biblical kind. He referred to these changes as “varieties.” According to Linnaeus, “The number of varieties is the number of differing plants that are produced from the seed of the same species.”12 In other words, Linnaeus allowed for variation within kinds where he thought the kind boundary was, just like creationists today.

The problem, however, is that Linnaeus got the level of the kind wrong. Modern creation science holds that the kind is roughly at the family level, with some exceptions.13 Before faulting Linnaeus too harshly, recall that he first published Systemae Natura in 1735, over one hundred years prior to Darwin and nearly three hundred years ago. Linnaeus was operating with much less information compared to today’s scientists—as were all scientists in the past. And many even today have had to alter their theories even within their lifetimes. Furthermore, as has been pointed out by creationists since Linnaeus, the Swede changed his view towards the end of his life. By the time he died, Linnaeus had moved his view of the kind from the species level, to roughly where it is today, believing dogs, wolves, and foxes could all hybridize.14 That’s essentially identical to the modern creationist view. To his credit, Linnaeus realized his error and shifted his view of where the kind boundary was. However, Linnaeus’s 300-year-old original statements from lack of information have given many evolutionists a perpetual strawman. Even in secular graduate school textbooks, creation is still presented as fixity of species15 when such was never Linnaeus’s intent.

Lest there be any doubt about Linnaeus’s religious beliefs, or that Christianity was the source of his thinking, recall that he was brought up in a Christian home with a pastor father. Further, his own writings support his belief in a Creator: “The observer of nature sees, with admiration, that ‘the whole world is full of the glory of God.’”16 He further noted, “God infinite, omniscient and omnipotent, woke me up and I was amazed! I have read some clues through His created things, in all of which, is His will; even in the smallest things, and the most minute! How much wisdom! What an inscrutable perfection!”17 Linnaeus acknowledged God as Creator of all that he was observing.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the Linnaean shift has been ignored, deliberately or otherwise, because it undermines the narrative some evolutionists want to spin. It is much simpler to knock down an old straw man than deal with the current issues. Regardless of such evolutionary claims, Linnaeus was a gifted and intelligent scientist who had a keen understanding of the biblical text of Genesis, recognizing the existence of created kinds. His systematic was based on an understanding of the biblical text and was a significant advance for its time.

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Footnotes

  1. At the time, Sweden was transitioning from patristic names to family names. Under the old patristic system, Linnaeus’s patristic name would have been Carl Nilsson, as his father’s name was Nils. However, when his father began his education in theology, he was required to pick a family name, thus providing one to his son.
  2. Heinz Goerke, Linnaeus tr. Denver Lindley (New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1973), 13.
  3. Florence Caddy, Through the Fields with Linnaeus: A Chapter in Swedish History (London: Little, Brown, and Company, 1887), 43.
  4. Gymnasium was the Swedish equivalent of modern high school.
  5. Goerke, 15.
  6. Ibid., 18-19.
  7. Caddy, 1887, 125.
  8. Goerke, 27.
  9. Philip D. Cantino and Kevin de Queiroz, International Code of Phylogenetic Nomenclature (PhyloCode) (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2020).
  10. Ernst Mayr Animal Species and Evolution, Harvard (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1963), 20.
  11. Carl Linnaeus, tr. Stephen Freer, Philosophia Botanica (Oxford University Press, 2003), 113.
  12. Ibid, 114.
  13. T.C. Wood (2006), “The Current Status of Baraminology” Creation Research Society Quarterly 43 (3): 149–158.
  14. Per Landgren, “On the Origin of ‘Species’: Ideological Roots of the Species Concept.” Chapter in Siegfried Scherer, ed., Typen des Lebens (Berlin Pascal-Verlag, 1993), 47–64.
  15. Jon C. Herron and Scott Freeman, Evolutionary Analysis (Glenview, IL: Pearson Education, 2014).
  16. Carl von Linne, A Tour in Lapland vol. 1 (1811), translated by James Edward Smith, 238.
  17. Carl Linnaeus, Systema Naturae, 12th edition, 1766-1768.

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